Mourning the Autumn in New York City That Could Have Been | The New Yorker

Oct 4, 2021 6:11 PM

What if, once the city had made it through the worst of the pandemic, we’d refused to settle for less in every area of our lives?


Earlier this month, a friend invited me to a rooftop picnic near the southern tip of Manhattan. A spectacular sunset gave way to the sparkle and glitter of the island at night when viewed from a great height: the empty glass skyscrapers, their lights always on, looking like see-through doll houses; car headlights and tail-lights melding together, turning northbound avenues into red ribbons and southbound avenues into white ones. “It’s Christmas every day,” my friend said, referring to the illumination. The invocation of December and a piercing wind reminded me that our time socializing outside in relative comfort is ending; this is the eve of our city’s next long, dark winter. I felt for a moment like I did when I was a child, in the Soviet Union. Every September, after a summer spent away from Moscow, I heard endless talk about the beginning of a new, eventful school year, but all I could see stretching ahead of me were months of cold, darkness, and loneliness. Returning to the city was the opposite of reclaiming a life—instead, life was being reduced, once again, to a bare existence. This September in New York, amid different if still incessant talk about returning to school, I find myself filled with that old, familiar dread. It’s worse than when I was a kid, though, because this time I know that it didn’t have to be this way.

Ever since the city’s lockdown began, in March, most of its response has boiled down to going without: working, teaching, and learning without leaving the house; parenting without help or a witness; communicating without warmth; living without serendipity. But what if, once New Yorkers had made it through the grief and despair of the spring, we had seen in the pandemic an urgent call for creative problem-solving—for new, inventive thinking? What if we’d refused to settle for less in every area of our lives? Imagine what this September might look like then.

First off, those empty skyscrapers—including the tallest of them all, One World Trade Center, where the offices of The New Yorker are normally located—have been converted into schoolhouses. Their up-to-date, well-maintained ventilation systems, which most existing school buildings lack, provide students with clean air to breathe. The vast amount of space allows every child in Manhattan to attend school in person, every day, while maintaining safe physical distance. (In real life, my older children attended high schools that are considered gems of the city system. Currently, one is housed entirely two levels below grade—there are no windows anywhere. The other is situated in a large metal, shipping-container-style shed, in a parking lot. Yes, the entire school is in the shed.)

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The teachers instructing our children in these new spaces are different, too. There are more of them, because classes are smaller, and they are all younger than fifty—most of them are recent college graduates. There has been a tremendous effort, in the spirit of the Works Progress Administration, to recruit new college grads and the recently unemployed as teachers, teachers’ aides, and paraprofessionals—they all received crash courses, over the summer, so that they could help in the citywide drive to get children back to school safely. Older and at-risk teachers have been approved to work from home; some are teaching students who, for health or family reasons, are completely remote, but most are providing their younger replacements with virtual support, effectively conducting an apprenticeship program of unprecedented scale and ambition. Although we don’t know how many of these young people will continue as teachers after the pandemic is over, we are creating a generation of New Yorkers who have worked in the public schools—an experience that will change their conceptions of citizenship and the city and which will transform our politics for years to come. (In real life, during an August Zoom meeting with parents, the principal of my youngest child’s school wondered out loud how the city expected it effectively to double the number of classes that it offers without hiring any new teachers—not even to replace the two who had retired and the one who had died.)

These teaching positions are just some of the new jobs created during the pandemic and funded by a new wealth tax. The billionaires and hundred-millionaires of New York, along with the rest of the city’s population, supported the institution of this tax. It seemed the only logical political consequence of the spectacle of the rich getting richer—largely thanks to the actions of the Federal Reserve in propping up the stock market—even as millions of people lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. The new tax income funded the retrofitting of the city’s office buildings as schools; meanwhile, the people who used to populate these buildings continue to work remotely, as they have for the past six months. New city and state legislation has enabled organizations to break their office leases—a godsend for, among others, New York’s legion of nonprofit organizations, fund-raising for which cratered when in-person events became impossible and the economy slowed down.

Following the success of the federal enhanced unemployment program, New York City has piloted several universal-basic-income projects. These efforts are concentrated in neighborhoods with lower average incomes, because they have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and because they have the highest concentration of residents with jobs that cannot be performed remotely. The guaranteed income has allowed higher-risk people to stay home while younger, healthier people go to work. In some cases, it has also enabled multi-generation households to reconfigure their living arrangements to improve the safety of vulnerable relatives. As in other places where U.B.I. experiments have been conducted, the positive effect on people’s mental health was observed almost immediately.

Another boon to the city’s mental health is exercise. Since April, alternating avenues have been closed to car traffic. New Yorkers have embraced bicycles and kick scooters. The new Citi Bike tandems have been a hit—many families now use them to commute to school. With all the two- and three-wheel commuting, and all those other people working remotely, the subway and buses, both of which have been free since March, when fares were suspended, are half empty even at rush hour, which makes them safer.

After they’d finished turning office towers into schools, the city’s new retrofitting construction crews—still funded by the wealth tax—went to work turning hotels and other office towers into mixed-use, mixed-age housing. The pandemic has forced a reckoning with the city’s homelessness problem. For some, it was the realization that a large number of New Yorkers couldn’t obey the city’s early stay-at-home orders because they had no home to stay in. For others, it was understanding that the current system of shelters is not only inhumane and insufficient but also dangerous, because it aids the spread of infection. And, once people experiencing homelessness moved into some of the empty hotels, it was politically impossible for city officials to kick them out, back into the streets and shelters. New York had to become a city where everyone has a permanent address.

And so on. I shared some of these what-could-have-been fantasies with my friend during our rooftop picnic. “Americans can never do any of that,” she told me. “They are too afraid of socialism. You can’t even talk to them about taxation, for example.” My friend is, like me, a queer ethnic-minority émigré from what used to be the Soviet Union. You would think that if anyone should be afraid of socialism it’s us. True enough, except socialism as we knew it was a regime of indifference, incompetence, and disregard for human life. It wasn’t socialism but totalitarianism that produced the lonely, anxious, atomized state that we remember from childhood.

Hannah Arendt once wrote that all that separates us from the ever-real threat of totalitarianism is “the great capacity of men to start something new.” Little is new in this city now. Its office towers stand empty, its streets are once again full of cars, its schools are struggling (and struggling unequally), its unhoused citizens are getting kicked out of the Upper West Side hotels where they had been temporarily sheltered, the rich are getting richer, the wind is getting colder, and there is but one coronavirus-era invention that the city has decided to adopt: expanded outdoor dining.

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